Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas

The Orphans are taking a well-deserved break for the holidays. They'll be back in the new year with more fantastic adventures!

Art courtesy Steampunk Scholar

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-6, C-2

The story so far…

Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers (humans who have been turned into animalistic killing machines by exposure to Mist) and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate. In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to a crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. On a smuggling run to Atlantis they picked up the latest member of the crew, Dog, a runaway gladiator.
Lately the crew tried to recover several tons of gold from Charkart’s warehouse, but they had to dump it to avoid crashing into a lake, as Hecate had taken heavy damage during a firefight. Tom managed to rescue some of the gold, but was dragged through a wisp of Mist. Before the psychotic rage that overtook him caused him to kill anyone, Ishara, a mysterious ghost-woman who haunts Hecate, twisted something inside his brain that knocked Tom unconscious. Now she’s patched his brain to keep him from turning into a Dragger, but the fix is only temporary. What’s more, Tom just found out that Charkart is assembling an army to invade Bedford, where Hecate is currently undergoing repairs, because Charkart thinks they still have the gold.

Episode 6
Chapter 2

Tom took a deep breath. “Whoa now… before I start, you have to promise me two things.”
Agatha’s pistol wavered for a moment from his forehead, then she snapped it back into position. “Why should I promise you anything?”
“They’re simple requests. All I want is that you keep this conversation between the two of us for now, and that you hear me out fully before pullin’ that trigger.”
“Okay, but only if you back off a few paces.”
Tom slowly stepped backwards until Agatha lowered the barrel of her revolver. He let out a breath and thought about how he could phrase things to avoid being filled full of holes.
“Don’t make me wait too long, Tom.”
“Right… sure, well first off, I wasn’t being quite straight up when I told you I didn’t hit any Mist.”
Agatha snapped the revolver back up into firing position, aimed straight at his head. “I knew it! God damn bastard! I should kill you right now.”
“You promised! Agatha, hear me out. Am I acting like a Dragger?”
She lowered the gun so it was pointed at his chest. “No… but I don’t know everything about Draggers.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t think many people do. It’s…. You know where you go when you die?”
“You’re seriously not doing anything to allay my concerns here, Tom, talkin’ about me dyin’ and all…. I suppose you’re just gone, finished, blackness, whatever.”
“Well, seems it’s more complicated than that. Mist is made up of dead people, Agatha, somehow their souls have been… I don’t know, defiled or something. They possess the living ‘cause they’re impotent on their own.”
“You’re still not convincin’ me.”
“Right, well Ishara is a ghost too. Only she’s whole, and she has some kind of powers. She fixed me so the spirit inside me can’t take possession.”
“You have any idea how crazy all this sounds?”
Tom grimaced. “Some. If I hadn’t lived it I probably wouldn’t believe it either. You’ve got to admit it explains Ishara at least.”
Agatha paused and rubbed at her temple with her off hand. “Yeah… it does that. So why is she undamaged, and everyone else is driven to killin’ rage?”
“I have no idea, but I think we can use this. If we can learn more, we can figure out how to do somethin’ about the Mist. Maybe even get rid of it entirely.”
Agatha holstered her revolver. “Even the chance of that is worth the risk. You show any signs of cracking though, and I won’t hold back.”
Tom nodded. “Agatha, if it comes to that, I expect no less. I’ll write a journal explaining everything, and keep it in the secret compartment in my room. If you have to kill me, you can use that to explain why.”
Agatha sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve. “Tom I…” her eyes started to mist, and she looked away, “I hope it don’t come to that.”
“Right, well I second that. Now, let’s go back a page. Who the hell could have stolen my gold?”
Harry Rees did not look pleased to see Nikki and Willow again. “You brought the gold?”
Nikki nodded and held up a messenger pouch.
Rees brightened slightly. “Let’s see it.”
Nikki dropped the heavy bag on the table. “There’s a bonus in it for you, if you can keep word we’re alive from getting back to our parents.”
Rees sniffed. “You two ought to give me a bonus for being a pain in my ass. If Charkart invades, I’ll have to find a new place to do business.”
Willow pushed the bag forward. “Well then you ought to be thankful. An extra two pounds of gold should help you relocate.”
Rees laughed. “Fair, but you know they’ll hear about you sooner or later.”
“You let us worry about that.” Willow turned and led Nikki out. “Come on, let’s get back to Hecate before anyone misses us.”
Nikki sighed. “Yeah… yeah.”
“We’re just doing what we got to.”
“Stealing from Tom.”
Willow put her arm around Nikki’s shoulder. “We’ll make it up to him, and it’s a damn sight better than going back to Mom and Dad.”
Nikki nodded. “The plan was for us to have so much gold Tom’d never notice it missing.”
“Nikki, I don’t like crossing Tom either, but we did what we had to.”
“I know… I just, I’d feel better if he was awake. I could have asked.”
“Nikki, don’t you do it.”
“Do what?”
“You’re going to tell him when he comes ‘round aren’t you?”
“No…” Nikki shoved her hands deep in her pockets, “well maybe.”
“Just let it be, he’ll be right cranky when he finds out it’s missing. We add in our affiliations, which is bound to come out in that discussion, and we might as well just go back to the Dodgers now.”
“Where have you been?” Tom eyed Nikki and Willow as they boarded Hecate.
Nikki was about to speak when Willow elbowed her in the midriff. “Just stretchin’ our legs.”
Nikki swallowed and nodded. “I’m so glad you’re okay, Tom. You are okay… right?”
Tom grinned. “Well, truth told, I felt terrible when I woke up. Now I’m doing a whole mess better. If it weren’t for the missing gold and Charkart on the warpath I’d be right dandy.”
Nikki shuffled her feet and cleared her throat. She looked ready to say something when Willow threw her arms around Tom and gave him hug. “We were worried about you ya big lug.”
Tom put an arm around Nikki’s shoulder. “Well, I’m fine. Is that what’s getting to you, or losing the gold?”
“Bit of both, I guess.” Nikki sniffed.
“It’s okay, really. I’m fine. I was pretty wound up when I found the gold missing, but I don’t blame you. I will stake whoever took it to an anthill and smother him in honey though.”
Willow punched him in the arm. “Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?”
Tom nodded. “Right, maybe I’ll just yank out all their finger and toenails with a pair of rusty pliers.”
“Well, we’ll probably never know who did it, so what does it matter? Gone is gone. We’ll find a way to make more.” Willow shrugged. “We should get back to helping Shorty fix up Hecate.”
“You don’t think it was one of the crew?”
Willow scratched her ear. “Maybe, but we had a half-dozen or so people from Bedford on board before anyone noticed the gold was missin’. Could have been any one of them.”
“What I don’t get is why they left us enough for repairs. Why not take all of it?”
“Who knows what goes through the minds of thieves and criminal lowlife types. We’re just a couple of small-town girls, right Nikki?”
Nikki frowned at her sister and sighed. “Yeah…. By the way, Tom, Sheriff is holding a town hall tonight. He wants one of us to stop by, give our side of things, you know.”
“Sure, I can handle that, sounds like fun.”
“Get out of our town!”
Tom ducked as a beer bottle whistled overhead. The crowd gathered in the town square roiled with anger.
“Pipe down!” The Sheriff of Bedford stepped forward, shielding Tom. “Any one of you throws another thing is going to land in jail so fast they’d swear they was born there!” He waited a moment for the crowd to settle. “Now, y’all know this has been comin’ for some time. If it weren’t for Hecate and her crew, Charkart would be comin’ in a month, or a year, maybe two, but sure as shootin’ he’d be comin’. Point is they didn’t bring trouble.” The Sheriff waved his hand in Tom’s direction. “Charkart is the enemy here, and any in-fightin’ goes on here only helps him.”
“If we got rid of them at least we’d have another while to prepare!” A tall man from the crowd pushed forward.
“That ship has sailed my friend. Once Charkart mounted an army there was only one place he was going to point it. There’s no way he’ll stand down, even if they left today.”
“But what if we turn them over?” A woman’s voice from the crowd. “All he wants right now is them!”
The Sheriff tipped his hat. “Ma’am, respectfully, he wants the gold he thinks they have more than he wants them. Even if we turned ‘em over, he’d think we were hidin’ the gold.”
“Well, how do we know they ain’t hiding the gold?” The tall man pressed forward.
“Yeah who would dump that much gold!” a fat man at the front said. “I’d push my wife out first if the load needed lightening.”
“You’d push your wife out for free!” shouted another voice.
“Point is,” said the tall man, “we think they’re holdin’ out. And we want our share!”
“We want a share! We want a share!” The crowd chanted, all of them surging forward at once.
The Sheriff backed off and put his hand to the revolver at his side. “Sorry ‘bout this Tom. I suspect Charkart’s men have been working behind the scenes here to rile folks up. They ain’t normally so cutthroat.”
Tom was about ready to draw his own pistol, when a series of gunfire reports echoed across the small valley. Everyone froze and listened to the wind. The shots continued, a rapid exchange of fire between two sides.
“They’re here!” called the Sheriff. “Every armed man get to your perimeter stations. Tom, you come with me.” He took off at a run toward the sound of battle.

 <----- Previous          Start from the Beginning          Next ----->

Monday, December 10, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-6, C-1

The story so far…

Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers (humans who have been turned into animalistic killing machines by exposure to Mist) and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate. In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to a crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. On a smuggling run to Atlantis they picked up the latest member of the crew, Dog, a runaway gladiator.
Lately the crew tried to recover several tons of gold from Charkart’s warehouse, but they had to dump it to avoid crashing into a lake, as Hecate had taken heavy damage during a firefight. Tom managed to rescue some of the gold, but was dragged through a wisp of Mist. Before the psychotic rage that overtook him caused him to kill anyone, Ishara, a mysterious ghost-woman who haunts Hecate, twisted something inside his brain that knocked Tom unconscious.

Episode 6
Chapter 1

“Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom…”
Tom woke feeling like he’d spent the night with a horse sleeping on him. Every fibre of his body was sore and cold. More than that, his spirit was flayed raw, he felt angry and afraid. Something had happened to him… but he was at a loss to figure out what.
“Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom…”
He squeezed his eyes shut. “Shut up.”
“Oh… you’re awake? Rise and shine sleepy.”
Tom couldn’t place the voice. He blinked his eyes open and gradually the world swam into view around him. He was lying on his bed on Hecate. No engine noise, so they must be stopped.
He turned to the side and groaned. “Not you… Ishara, what are you doing here?”
“Yes me, of course me…. Should I be offended by his ever-so-rude manner? Perhaps I should give him a little wiggle room on this one, after all it’s not every day a man gets himself infected by Mist through his own stupid greed and general thick-headedness, now is it?”
“I… that wasn’t a dream?”
“Nonono, Tom dear. You were naughty, ignored my advice didn’t you. Ignored my advice and paid the price, that’s what happened to poor Tom Cain.”
“But I’m not… you know, a raving maniac.”
“Saved you, I did that. Saved you from your idiocy. Though why I bother is beyond me. Men like you can never really be saved. You’ll find a way to undo all the patches I’ve made in your head soon enough.”
Tom sat up, his head swam. If he focused, he realized he could see straight through Ishara to the bulkhead behind her. She really was a ghost. “Patches?”
She shook her head. “Temporary… though I suppose all things are. Even the land which hath borne Man shall one day turn to dust.” She frowned. “Where do I know that from?”
“How long until the patches fail?”
“What the hell are you talking about Ishara?”
Tom took a deep breath. “What does that mean?”
“En-men-lu-ana was a poet, and a king. I knew him as a poet first, before the throne went to his head. He was a lousy poet after he ascended. That’s where I remembered the line from. It was one of his.”
“I don’t care about your stupid poet! How long until the patches in my brain fail and I turn into a bloodthirsty beast?”
“Oh… that.” Ishara narrowed her eyes at Tom. “Two weeks, two months, two years… one of those I think. Probably not two days or two hours.”
“Not, maybe, two decades?”
Ishara laughed. “Two decades is twenty years Tom. No, you have two something, at most.”
“At most?”
“Yes Tom… that means maybe less.” She rolled her eyes at him. “Depends on you. I can help you fight, but only while you’re young. Once you’re a full adult….”
“I lose my mind and start killing anybody in sight.”
Ishara nodded. “That is a good summary Tom, I’m glad to see you’ve been paying attention.”
“Thanks.” Tom groaned and rolled to the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet with him to cover his nakedness. His clothes were there, but his pistol was gone, and his rigging knife was missing from his belt.
Ishara laughed. “I will go now. You have a lot to catch up with.”
“Yeah, whatever. Say hi to Enmenlulu for me.”
“En-men-lu-ana. I’d say hi, but he’s been dead for several millennia.”
Tom grunted. “Aren’t you dead too?”
Ishara’s face fell. “Tom, it’s very rude to remind me of that. How would you feel if you were dead and the living rubbed your nose in it.”
Tom rubbed his eyes, unsure which would drive him insane first, the twisted remains of a human soul nestled inside him, or Ishara. “I mean, if he’s dead, isn’t he a ghost too?”
“Oh Tom, how do you think this works?”
“Honestly, I haven’t a deuced clue, and I don’t much care either.”
“Well fine, be that way then.” Ishara faded from nearly substantial-looking to nothing, and in no more than a second she was gone.
Tom shook his head and mumbled under his breath, “Crazy bitch.”
 “I heard that.”
Tom threw his boot in the direction of the disembodied voice. “Yeah, well stay the hell out of my quarters! Did you hear that?”
There was no response.
After getting dressed, Tom swung his door wide and nearly fell over Agatha. She sat against the opposite side of the hall, with her feet nearly in his doorway. One leg was bound up in a cast. Tom began to wonder how long he’d been out.
Agatha blinked and looked up at him. Her eyes shot open, and she made a grab for her revolver.
“Whoa whoa, Agatha! What’s goin’ on?” Tom raised his open hands.
Agatha narrowed her eyes at him. Her revolver was clear of its holster, but she left it pointed away from him. “You feelin’ okay Tom?”
Tom shrugged. “Sore as hell, but I reckon I’ll live.”
Agatha played her trigger finger back and forth across the trigger guard, as if itching to slide it inside. “What do you remember?”
“Y’all dumped the gold… I saved some bars and got on the ladder… I got to the top and… passed out I guess.”
“Nothin’ else? You didn’t hit no Mist?”
Tom remembered the cold shock of his leg connecting with the tendril of Mist. The evil spirit worming its way into his brain, overwhelming Tom’s persona with the desire to kill. “No. If I had, I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you now would I?”
Agatha slipped her revolver back in its holster. “All right. You were laughing some crazy when we hauled you in. I was ‘bout ready to blast you full of lead when you collapsed.”
“Well thanks for holding back.”
“Tom, I ain’t never gonna hold back. If it hadn’t a been for my broken leg, and Willow jumping on my arm, you’d be a dead man right now.”
“Ahh… I see. How long was I out?”
“Nearly three days. A lot’s happened. Help me to my feet, and I’ll catch you up.”
Tom got Agatha to her feet and handed her the crutch that had been lying next to her. The two of them made their way to the galley, and Tom began to prepare himself a feast.
After a few bites, Tom looked around. “Where is everybody?”
“Busy. Look, Tom, we done pissed off Charkart something royal.”
“But, no big deal right? We made it away. We just won’t go back to that neck of the woods for a few years.”
“It’s a very big deal Tom. I don’t think he knows we dumped most of the gold. Story is he’s amassing an army in Havenvale, getting ready to invade.”
Tom blinked. “Charkart’s going to invade Johnson City?”
“Didn’t make it that far. Six gasbags were punctured, and we were losin’ altitude even after droppin’ the gold. We only made it as far as Bedford, and you can thank Nikki for that. Charkart’s only a half-day’s trip away, and Bedford has nothing like the manpower we’d need to defeat him.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Townies are right sideways about it. They want us gone yesterday. Only the Sherriff and a few old hands took our side, they’re organizin’ a militia to help fight off Charkart. Shorty’s got the others workin’ to fix the gasbags, but he figures it’ll be at least a week before we can get airborne.”
Tom rubbed his eyes. “So what’s the plan to defend Bedford?”
“We’re hopin’ it don’t come to that.”
“Holy hell Agatha! You hope! That’s the plan?”
Agatha dropped her gaze. “I don’t know how to fight a war, Tom. Do you?”
Tom was about to answer that he had no idea either, but there was something inside him that did. He tried not to think too deeply about it as he accessed the knowledge of the psychotic spirit lodged inside his skull. Whoever the spirit had been in life, they knew a lot about warfare, and though Ishara had created an emotional barrier between Tom and the other, it didn’t block all passage of thought. In fact it was almost as if the other man’s skills and training belonged in Tom’s own past. The only thing missing was the memories that would have given that knowledge context.
“Well first light tomorrow, we need to run a team of scouts up to the ridge overlooking Black Lake. If I remember the terrain right, it’s a natural choke point. Even a handful of rifles there could hold off an army for several hours. They can take to the trees at night, like we did, and watch for movement during the day.”
“What good does a few hours buy us? We need a week!”
“No, we don’t. There’s what… eleven or so hours of daylight per day, this time of year. Movin’ a big group of men overland slows things down, so the trip’s gonna take at least nine hours. All the men on the ridge have to do is hold them for two, three hours, then retreat. Our small unit can take to high ground and spend the night in the trees, but a big army can’t do that. They’ll have to turn back or face the Mist.”
Agatha narrowed her eyes. “How do you know all this?”
Tom grinned. “I guess I read too many adventure stories when I was younger.”
Agatha snorted. “That explains a whole mess of things about you, Tom.”
“Speakin’ of adventures… where’s my treasure at?”
Agatha averted her eyes. “I put it in the armoury safe.”
Tom frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“Uhh, Tom, I don’t rightly know how to say this.”
“Oh come on! It can’t be that bad. Did you spend too much on parts? That’s okay, I must have rescued a dozen pounds of gold easy! We’re still sittin’ pretty right?”
“Yeah, ‘bout that Tom….” Agatha grimaced and shook her head.
“Well for Lord’s sakes, spit it out! The suspense is killin’ me. Is it gone?”
Agatha looked about ready to cry. Tom had never seen her that upset before. He was so used to her being the tough one, he’d almost forgotten she was younger than him by a few years.
“It’s gone isn’t it! What, all of it?”
“I’m so sorry Tom. I don’t know what happened! We put the gold away safe, like I said…. Next mornin’ it was nearly all gone. If we cut a few corners there’s enough for repairs, and a new cargo lift, and that’s it.”
Tom felt woozy. The shock of losing all that gold, after he’d sacrificed what he had…. Doomed himself to decay and eventual insanity. He felt the spirit wormed into his brain testing, probing for weakness. The urge to kill crept forward. He started to hyperventilate, then the rapid breathing turned to laughter. It would be so easy to spill her soul. There would be nobody to stop him, and she deserved it, losing his money like that.
A metallic click brought him back to reality. Tom blinked and realized he was staring down the barrel of Agatha’s revolver. She stood, quivering in a corner of the mess. When had he crossed the room, or even arisen from his chair? There were gaps in time he couldn’t explain.
Tom raised his hands slowly. “Whoa there Agatha. Just hold it. Sorry I went off a bit there… umm, so who could have taken the gold?”
Agatha raised her left hand to steady her aim. “What’s goin’ on with you, Tom.”
“Nothin’, really… I’m fine. Just, sorta taken aback…. You know, losing all that gold.”
She narrowed her eyes. “That’s not it. You’d better do some quick explainin’ Tom, my finger is gettin’ awful twitchy here.”

 <----- Previous          Start from the Beginning          Next ----->

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, C-6

The story so far…

Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate.
In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to a crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. They did lose what they thought was a near-worthless cargo of lead bars. It turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Now the crew is trying to recover their lost treasure. Nikki, Shorty and Willow are due any minute rendezvous at Charkart’s warehouse with Hecate. Tom, Dog and Agatha are running out of time, they’ve moved the cargo to the third floor, but Charkart set fire to a cargo of diesel fuel on the ground.

Episode 5
Chapter 6

The temperature on the third floor shot up in seconds.
“The wagon is still on the lift! It stopped just short of this floor.” Dog pointed.
Tom ran over to see that the lift had come up several inches short of the third floor. The three of them threw their weight into it, but it was too much to pull the five ton cargo over.
Agatha scrambled up onto the wagon and started throwing bricks off.
“No!” screamed Tom. “We’ll build a ramp!” He ran to grab some boards while Agatha ignored him and carried on dumping their cargo. She’d dumped a few dozen by the time he got the makeshift ramp in place.
“Try again!” called Tom.
Agatha jumped down and hauled at the wagon, while Dog moved to the rear of the lift and pressed his back against the wagon, using his feet straight against the wall of the elevator to push.
Smoke billowed up the staircases, and the floors under their feet were getting warm as the wagon lurched from the lift.
“Run run run! We need some speed built to get the back wheels over!” called Tom.
The three of them strained to build momentum. The wagon’s rear wheels hit with a crunch and almost rolled back, but for a final push from Dog.
Agatha coughed and blinked back tears from the smoke. “Pull, come on!”
The wagon creaked around the corner, and jammed against a row of shelves. The passage was too narrow for them to make the turn.
“Come on we’ve got to get these shelves out of the way!” Tom started to unload the end of the shelves.
Dog put an arm out, blocking Tom. “Let me.” He drew his gladius and hacked at the wooden legs of the shelf on the far side.
Agatha drew her revolver and set to work shooting out the next leg. Soon the entire shelf groaned and collapsed against the wall.
They hauled the wagon to the window, but there was no sign of Hecate yet. Smoke was boiling up the staircases, and sweat poured off the three crewmates.
Tom checked his watch. “They’re not due for another two minutes.”
Dog pointed to the far side of the warehouse, where flames were starting to climb the staircase. “I don’t think we have two minutes.”
The smoke was too thick, Tom coughed repeatedly, and stuck his head out the window for a breath of fresh air. A crackle of gunfire below sent exploding brick shards into his face. Tom hurriedly withdrew.
Agatha and Dog were lying on the floor, wheezing for air. Tom lay next to them. “We’re going to have to jump if they don’t show soon.”
Agatha coughed. “Charkart’s gonna eat us alive.”
Tom shrugged. “You wanna burn?”
A large section of floor collapsed, sending a gout of flame up to the third floor. The heat washed over the three crewmates. It cleared the smoke away, but the air was so hot and dry it burned their lungs.
Tom closed his eyes. “I’ll go with whatever you guys decide. Do we jump or stay?”
Agatha took Tom’s hand in her right, and Dog’s hand in her left. “I say we stay. Stick together to the end.”
Dog nodded. “It would be good to die among friends.”
At that moment another crackle of gunfire came from below. Above they heard a faint, “Yaaahoo!” and the sound of a shotgun returning fire.
Tom stuck his head out to see Hecate’s lift. Shorty dangled over the edge, blasting merrily away at the crowd below with his sawed-off shotgun. “You folks need a lift?”
Tom and Dog scrambled behind the wagon and pushed it over. Gunfire from below continued. Agatha jumped on to the elevator and began to snap off shots at the men below.
Slowly the wagon rolled across, bumping down as it moved from the building to the lift. As the front wheels of the wagon hit, the lift began to sink, tipping the whole cart forward dramatically. Several dozen gold bricks teetered forward, and spilled off the edge of the lift onto the ground below.
Behind them, there was a mighty roar and woosh, as the far wall of the warehouse collapsed. The rear wheels of the wagon cleared, and it shot forward, out of Tom and Dog’s control, smashing against the far side of the elevator cage. They heard a scream from the front of the wagon.
Shorty launched a flare, and Hecate powered up, full throttle, pulling them away from the side of the warehouse. Tom slammed the elevator gate shut, just as the wagon came rolling back up against it, and they were off.
More gunfire crackled below, but it faded in the distance. Tom scrambled around the wagon to see Agatha lying on the floor of the lift, clutching at her leg. “God damn wagon ran me over!” Her lower leg was bent at a funny angle.
Tom turned to Shorty. “We’ve got to get her up!”
Shorty took the winch controls, the lift jolted upwards, then stopped. He tried again, with the same result. “Too heavy!” He looked up to the belly of Hecate, where Willow was leaning out, watching the action below. “Willow! We need a ropeladder!”
She cupped her hand to an ear, and Dog bellowed, “Rope-ladder!”
Willow nodded and withdrew her head. A moment later a ropeladder snaked down.
Dog picked Agatha up, and slung her over his shoulder. “Tom, you go first and help me get over the lip when we reach the top.”
Tom shook his head. “Shorty, you do it. I’m stayin’ with the gold. Tune the engines for speed when you get a chance. I think we might have company soon.”
Shorty nodded and scrambled up the ladder. Dog followed a moment later, climbing carefully with one hand holding Agatha, and one for the ladder.
Tom shivered as the night wind whistled around the elevator cage and admired his haul. Enough gold for all of them to do as they pleased. He hoped the crew wouldn’t break up, given the choice he’d rather stay with them, and Hecate, no matter how rich he became. Maybe he’d retire to an estate on Atlantis when he was done adventuring around the world, away from the Mist. Until then the money was insurance. They’d never have to take a shady deal, or fight for work again.
Behind them a spotlight stabbed into the night, skewering Tom and the lift in its beam. Tom blinked and shaded his eyes. The pursuing zeppelin was far behind. Once Shorty tuned the engines, Hecate would be safely away before they figured out what had happened.
Tom thumbed his nose at their pursuers, though they were probably too far off to see it. “Never catch us now, suckers!”
There was a clang and the sound of breaking wood from the side of the lift cage. Tom peered over the edge to see they were skimming treetop height. The lift cage had just trimmed the top of a tree. What was Nikki thinking? They were way too low.
Hecate angled up, straining against gravity. Tom heard the engines change pitch, one by one as Shorty tuned them, but they weren’t gaining any altitude.
Hecate was forced ever lower, now they had to follow a deep valley to avoid crashing. Some of the gasbags must be leaking, shot out in the firefight back in Havenvale. At the end of the valley, coming up far too fast, a sight Tom recognized from the hike in. Black lake, seething with Mist.
Dog leaned out of the belly of Hecate’s cargo bay. “Tom, we must jettison the lift!”
Tom looked at the enormous pile of gold. “No!”
“There is no choice! Take the ropeladder!”
Tom ignored him. He scrambled to the pile of gold bars and began to stuff as many as he could in his pockets.
“Tom, do not be a fool! Grab the ladder!”
One last brick into his jacket pocket, and Tom waddled to the ladder, bulging at the seams. He looked ahead and saw they were nearly at the lake. The mass of Mist towered over him, and the lift was headed straight for it.
Tom hooked his arm onto the ladder and looked up. “Okay! Cut it!”
One of the four steel cables holding the lift to Hecate’s cargo bay severed with a sharp twang. The loose end sliced through the air, narrowly missing Tom. Another twang and the next cable snaked past.
The lift below tilted at a crazy angle, and spilled some of it’s cargo into the lake below, but the cage held fast, and most of the gold remained. Above there was a groan of protest, the sound of metal too strained to hold up. Then with a crash, one of the winding drums gave, then the other. They smashed their way out of the cargo bay, and ripped through the air past Tom. The whole mess disappeared into the Mist below, followed by a splash as it hit water.
Hecate, suddenly freed of five tons of dead weight, shot upward.
Not fast enough. The wall of Mist in front of Tom was building, even as Hecate rose upward.
He wasn’t going to make it.
Tom tried to climb, but he was too weighed down with gold. Hecate strained upward, the ladder swung toward a clear patch in the Mist, and somehow, miraculously, Tom threaded the needle of seething tendrils that reached out clumsily for him. He was in the clear!
One last weakened strand of Mist shot upwards. Tom twisted to the side as far as he could go to swing himself away.
The tendril connected with Tom’s leg, like a splash of cold water.
At first he couldn’t believe it. Nothing had changed. Maybe he was still too young to be infected by Mist. A deep sense of loss overwhelmed him, replaced by anger, frustration and sadness.
Tom looked up. Above, Shorty had rigged the ropeladder to the remains of Hecate’s lift mechanism to haul him in. Willow peered over the edge, smiling at him, and Tom wanted to rip her throat out. She had what he needed. She had joy. He would tear her apart, and devour her soul, then the others aboard.
A laugh bubbled from his lips, the thrill of knowing he’d soon possess their most treasured feelings. That was what he needed, killing them would make everything better, make the pain go away and warm his withered heart.
He could feel them, their pleasures, happiness, love, satisfaction. Everything he lacked. He would take it all from them, rip their chests open and take what he needed.
Ishara appeared beside him, and for the first time he knew exactly what she was. A complete soul. A ghost, but not one that had been stripped of all its warmth and humanity, like the one worming its way into his brain.
The thing inside him urged him to take her, but Ishara just sighed. “Told you not to be greedy Tom. Told you, told you, now I’ve got to scold you.”
Tom looked up again. He was nearing the lip of the cargo-bay. Hands reached out for him. The urge to kill them all was nearly overpowering, there was barely enough self-control left, but he held back.
As helping hands grabbed hold of his clothes to pull him aboard, Ishara cocked her head to the side. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow. For now, you need sleep if you’re to fight off the intruder.”
She reached inside Tom’s forehead and pulled a cord inside his brain, flipping a switch he never knew he had. Instantly the world receded and Tom fell into darkness.

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